Three years after the Pulse nightclub shooting that left 49 dead and 53 wounded, Brandon Wolf has become one of the LGBTQ community's leading gun reform activists. This past summer, Wolf testified before the Congressional House Committee on Ways and Means. "I was the first survivor of Pulse to testify before Congress," he says.
"That's a shame. It's disgraceful actually, and it's totally unacceptable that one of the most horrific acts of violence in our nation's history and our stories were not being told in D.C." Wolf is hopeful that his testimony will be a turning point.
This week, Wolf speaks on The Advocate's LGBTQ&A podcast about why the national media moved on so quickly from the Pulse shooting, how to best care for survivors of gun violence, and why he finds hope in the younger generation, crediting them with the "sweeping change" that he says will come sooner than people think.
Read a preview below and click here to listen to the full podcast interview.
Jeffrey Masters: Pulse follows in the tradition of a Stonewall and the UpStairs Lounge; safe-spaces as targets of violence. Has it changed how you think about these other historic events?
Brandon Wolf: Yeah, I had the really distinct opportunity to meet with one of the original Stonewall activists and listen to him share his story, just how ordinary life was and how everything changed on a dime.
It brought a lot of clarity and I think gravity to the situation around Pulse, because all of a sudden, before you realize it, you're in the center of what feels like a hurricane of history and it's difficult to find your footing. I remember in the days and the weeks after Pulse, how unsettled I felt about everything. It was almost as if the world was moving in fast motion around me and I couldn't find any sense of normalcy in anything.
It just brings some gravity to the most ordinary of things becoming so extraordinary and also so invaded. Not only was it that safe space at Pulse that felt invaded, it was our everyday lives.
JM: Is it weird now that every time your name is in print, the words, "Pulse Survivor" always follows it?
BW: It's hard to wrap my head around sometimes because who wants that to be their identity, that their entire life is shaped by something so horrific and something so tragic. But at the same time, it's also empowering, because too often, violence against the LGBTQ community goes unnamed and unspoken of and we were really at risk of that after Pulse when the national talking heads wanted to write the story themselves. They wanted to make it about terrorism. They wanted to make it about Islamic extremism. These are all the things that people were talking about. And what they tried to do, I think unsuccessfully, was erase the fact that this was largely LGBTQ people of color who were impacted.
Now when I see articles come out that include my story and other people's stories, I think that we're doing a justice for those 49 people who aren't here anymore because we're actually telling the real stories of what happened and what happened afterward and how we can stop it from happening to other people.
JM: This year, there have been more mass shootings than days. What is it like to have to keep seeing these stories every day?
BW: It's a rough position for anybody to be in. I talk a lot about how personally impacted I was after Parkland. That probably is the closest to the Pulse level of trauma that I've felt.
JM: What was it about Parkland?
BW: I think that one, in particular, moved me so much because I knew what those kids were going to have to face next. I knew what they survived. I knew the sounds that they heard. I knew what they saw, the bodies lying on the ground. I knew how forever their lives would be changed.
And then on top of that I knew what was coming next. I knew that they wouldn't sleep well for the rest of their lives. I knew they would have horrible nightmares. I knew that they would look for exits in public spaces. I knew that they would get anxiety being in crowded places and I knew that they would be forced in front of television cameras to air all of their stories in front of the country in the most raw and vulnerable possible way.
And so for that reason, I think I felt mostly traumatized for them. I'll never forget meeting those students for the first time. They came to Tallahassee to lobby for gun safety reform days after the shooting at Parkland.
I had all these things in my head that I wanted to say. And the only thing I could get out was, "I am so sorry that we let you down. We didn't do enough to keep you safe. And I'm sorry for that." And they put their arms around me and they said, "It's okay. We're going to win this."
I believed them in that moment and it helped to pick me up after that immediate trauma afterward that I felt for them, the fear of what they were going to spend the rest of their lives going through. All of a sudden I felt empowered by them. They've really been my source of strength.
JM: You said that the national media and politicians moved on from Pulse really quickly, much quicker than Parkland.
BW: Well, yeah, we were too gay and too brown for people to care. That's real. When we got up in front of a camera, people in our community, people in the central Florida community got it because we're them. And they were feeling it.
But when stood up in front of a camera and asked for action from our leaders, they didn't see their kids in us. We were in a dark, dirty nightclub, gay and brown and doing what we do. And it's easy for us to feel as other to them.
When I turned on Fox News, and it was not me, not people that looked like me, not people that looked like people in that club talking about Pulse, as if they knew our stories, as if they knew our pain and our struggle. Then I realized that if people did not step up from our community, the brown LGBTQ voices would be erased from the story. And they were for a long time. Our leaders in Tallahassee and in Congress did not take action after Pulse.
JM: I'm really curious about how we as a society care for people after mass shootings since we have some many of them. After you went home, did any city official or mental health professional reach out to you?
BW: Yeah, I think the response to the shooting in Orlando is a model for how we can do things in other places. First of all, the city set up a trauma center called the Orlando United Assistance Center and they're the ones that really centralized all of the resources and what you could expect. They gathered information on attorneys, information on mental healthcare providers, information on what hospitals were providing what services, and all of that. So I think that was really important.
We also immediately reached out to the Department of Justice and formed a partnership there to make sure that there was money coming in from federal dollars to provide mental health resources for people who had been impacted: first responders, survivors, family members, all of that. Then all the money that was raised, the city worked alongside the National Compassion Fund to make sure all of those dollars went to directly to impacted people, not routed through other organizations that were going to suck up administrative fees.
So they didn't say, "OK, we're going to take this 20 some million dollars and open a building or start a foundation." They said, "We're going to actually give it to the people who were impacted so that they can pay their rent while they're out of work for months at a time, so that they can cover the costs of recovering from physical injury or as a family, so they can bury their loved ones with dignity and respect."
JM: That's amazing.
BW: Yeah, it certainly changed my life. I know it changed other people's lives to be able to take time to begin to grieve and heal. No time is ever enough time, but to be able to take time away from work and life and not worry that you're going to be evicted at the same time.
JM: After the shooing, was your next time at a gay bar like?
BW: I went that week.
JM: Oh really?
BW: Mm-hmm. I'm defiant. I'm a defiant person. I think my parents would agree with me on that.
I knew that for other people who didn't know me, it would come to define me, but in my personal life, I wanted to take back control of what I felt like I had lost. And so that week they held a drag fundraiser benefit event at another bar in town and I went. And it was scary and also empowering at the same time.
I held my ex's hand really, really tight the whole time, but I needed it. I needed to be there in that space with other queer people to say loud and clear that this was not going to change who we were. It was not going to scare us into hiding, but rather it was going to empower us to make change.
JM: How are you feeling about the current state of gun reform? Are there small victories that we're not seeing?
BW: I would argue that they're big victories. Think about where we were in 2016 and what were the presidential candidates able to say and not say about gun safety reform. It was not something that you could show up and talk about and create an issue around.
And then think about 2018, and where gun safety reform lived in the conversation during a midterm election. And this is maybe even more vulnerable because presidential candidates are allowed to be further out on issues. These are folks who are in potentially conservative districts, who are really running to take back the house, and they did it in overwhelming fashion. Over 40 candidates backed by the NRA lost in the 2018 midterms. That's massive.
You think about the NRA today and it's practically bankrupt. So these wins I think are not small. They're large. I also think that gun safety reform has moved from being a partisan issue to being a generational issue where you have an entire generation of young people who have a totally different perspective on guns and gun safety than their parents because they live in a society where they don't know anything different than active shooter drills. They don't know anything different than Bulletproof backpacks and metal detectors at the doors.
That has shaped their perspective in a way that I think will create sweeping change sooner than people think.
LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Brandi Carlile, and Roxane Gay.
Episodes come out every Tuesday.